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My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary thanked Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner for her positive and active engagement. He announced that he would visit
Sri Lanka on 29 April to call for urgent action by the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to avoid further civilian casualties and avert a humanitarian disaster; inside the conflict zone, civilians remained trapped by the fighting; the reported intimidation and killings by the LTTE were completely unacceptable; outside, internally displaced persons desperately needed full access to humanitarian assistance.
The Council adopted conclusions, based on a UK text, which: noted the LTTEs announcement of a unilateral cease-fire; called for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire to allow safe evacuation of civilians trapped in the conflict zone; welcomed the reported announcement by GoSL of an end to heavy military operations; welcomed the visit of Sir John Holmes, UN Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs; and repeated calls on GoSL to proceed urgently towards an inclusive and peaceful political process.
Discussion focussed on the EUs key messages to the parties. Ministers agreed on the importance of supporting a two-state solution and the integration of the Arab peace initiative, encouraging adherence to road map commitments, in particular on settlements, and urging Israel to open the crossings into Gaza.
This item was added to the agenda at the request of Malta and Italy, following a dispute between the two member states concerning the fate of 140 migrants rescued in nearby waters on 16 April. They expressed concerns about the issue of illegal migration across the Mediterranean, pointing out that it was a problem for the EU as a whole.
The UK is equally concerned about the increasing flows of illegal migrants through the Mediterranean region, many of whom transit through Libya before reaching Europe. In the last 12 months there have been approximately 34,000 illegal migrants entering Europe by sea on this route. We are working closely with our European partners, in particular Italy and Malta, to develop an effective framework for co-operation on border control with Libya.
This was added at Belgiums request following an attack upon a Belgian-flagged merchant vessel by pirates off the Somali coast on 18 April. Ministers discussed the recent surge in pirate activity off the coast of Somalia, and welcomed the positive action being taken by the EU counter-piracy operation ATALANTA in response.
High Representative Solana updated on his contacts with the Iranians following the E3+3s invitation to meet them. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary
underlined the need for the EU to adopt a robust approach in support of the US Administrations decision to engage with Iran. Solana agreed that the EU should be ready to act.
Ministers also adopted conclusions on Iran, which the Government welcome, supporting the new direction of US policy; and calling upon Iran to engage seriously with the international community in order to find a negotiated solution to the nuclear issue which will address its national interests, while noting that the evolution of the EUs relations with Iran will also depend on it.
On Afghanistan-Pakistan, High Representative Solana said there was a need for the EU to be more creative on Pakistan. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary underlined the importance of a successful EU-Pakistan Summit in June. The Commission noted its contribution of €40 million (£36 million) to the Afghanistan elections.
High Representative Solana reported on his visit to Chisinau in the previous week. He said it was important the EU kept engaging with Moldova, through the Eastern Partnership and by negotiating a New Agreement. Ministers welcomed the efforts of the High Representative, presidency and EU Special Representative in bringing about agreement that the Moldovan Government would enter into a political dialogue with the Opposition, and conduct an inquiry into the human rights abuses that followed the post-election protests. There were no conclusions.
Some member states expressed concerns about the lack of a co-ordinated EU approach to the Durban review conference. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary encouraged EU engagement in similar fora along with the Africans and others who had supported some of our positions in the negotiations.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces and I wish to make the following statement to the House about the inquests of service personnel who have died overseas. Our sincere condolences go to the families of the 13 service personnel who have lost their lives in service of their country since the last statement, and our thoughts and prayers remain with all the families whose loved ones have died on operations.
Today, we are announcing the progress that has been made since the Written Ministerial Statement on 2 February 2009, Official Report, column 37WS, with information about the conduct of inquests by the Wiltshire and Swindon and other coroners. This statement gives the position at 27 April.
At the time of the last statement, we reported that 220 inquests had been held since June 2006: 206 into the overseas deaths of service personnel and 14 into the deaths of civilians in Iraq whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton or RAF Lyneham.
Since operations commenced in 2001 there have been a total of 254 inquests into the deaths of service personnel who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, including four service personnel who died in the UK of their injuries. In two further cases, no formal inquest was held, but the deaths were taken into consideration during inquest proceedings for those who died in the same incident.
Our Departments continue to work closely together, and with the coroners, to review the way in which the system is working and to look for opportunities, prior to the implementation of the coroners legislation which is currently before Parliament in the Coroners and Justice Bill, to make improvements for the benefit of the bereaved families.
On 17 March the Government tabled amendments to the Coroners and Justice Bill, which will have the effect of enabling fatal accident inquiries to take place in Scotland into the deaths of service personnel killed on operations overseas. This reflects our commitment to support bereaved service families and will mean that families in Scotland will no longer, in most cases, have to travel to England for inquests.
The statement in February reported that there was one remaining inquest to be held into a death where the body was repatriated via RAF Brize Norton prior to 31 March 2007that into the death of Marine Wigley. That remains the position and the inquest will be heard for five days starting on 11 May.
Since October 2007, additional resources have been provided by the Government to ensure that a backlog of inquests will not build up in the Wiltshire and Swindon jurisdiction (since 1 April 2007 fatalities are repatriated via RAF Lyneham). The coroner transfers inquests for service personnel to a coroner closer to the bereaved family, where possible. David Masters retired as the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner on 31 March but his successor, David Ridley, has appointed him as an assistant deputy coroner to ensure that his experience and expertise is retained.
There are 71 inquests to be concluded into the deaths of service personnel who died in Iraq and Afghanistan whose bodies were repatriated after 1 April 2007 (33 involving deaths in the last six months). Of these, Mr Ridley has retained 38 inquests, while 33 inquests are being conducted by coroners closer to the next-of-kin. Inquest hearing dates have been set in 11 of these cases.
We shall continue to keep the House informed about progress with the remaining inquests. I have placed tables in the Library of the House which outline the status of all cases and date of death of each case. Copies are also available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.
The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Harriet Harman):
We are today beginning a UK consultation
on the European Commission proposal for an equal treatment directive. The consultation will end on 28 July 2009. The consultation document seeks views to inform the UK Governments further consideration of a proposed European Commission (EC) directive to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, disability, age and sexual orientation outside the areas of employment and vocational training.
The UK Government wish to consult in particular on the impact of the draft directive in those areas where their proposals are, or might be, at variance with the current and proposed law, and on the impact of the proposals on individuals, business and others.
The consultation document is being sent to around 300 organisations and will be available on the website of the Government Equalities Office at: www.equalities. gov.uk/international/eu_directive.aspx